Is Archbishops’ Council too powerful?

77438752I spent most of the last two days in my first meeting of Archbishops’ Council. I think I am still processing the experience, not least because to what one person called ‘institutional vertigo’—it feels a little surreal to be considering questions of national and strategic importance, when there are few other places to experience this. I was also very impressed with the range, experience and qualities of the other people on the Council (whether the feeling was mutual I didn’t dare ask!), and I think it will be fascinating to see the way that relationships develop.

As a new member of the Council, it became evident to me that things hadn’t always worked well up till now, both in the way the Council members related to one another and the way the Council had related to other groups in the Church. So, as a change to the way it does its business, we spent the first day looking at what the Council is for, what different people bring in terms of gifts, skills and experience, and what commitments we want to make in terms of the way we relate to one another and the way we do business. I think this flowed from Justin Welby’s conviction that the quality of relationships is crucial in determining how effective a group will be, even in making supposedly ‘objective’ decisions about strategy, finance and the like—and how much more so when we are a group of Christians together. It is the kind of exercise that I think any PCC would benefit from.

But even as we met, people were telling me that the Council has ‘too much power’, that certain people were ‘pushing their agenda’ and that ‘the Council will be taking over things that should be done by Synod’. I was aware of the deep suspicion that was around when the Council was first set up at the end of the 1990s, and I have a feeling that even Justin himself was unsure what the Council was for when he first came into office.

In order to evaluate whether this is the case, there are several things to consider. The first is the constitution of the Council itself the details of which are available on the Church’s website.

The objects of the Council under the National Institutions Measure 1998 are to ‘co-ordinate, promote, aid and further the work and mission of the Church of England’. The Council seeks to do this by:

  • giving a clear strategic sense of direction to the national work of the Church of England, within an overall vision set by the House of Bishops and informed by an understanding of the Church’s opportunities, needs and resources;
  • encouraging and resourcing the Church in parishes and dioceses;
  • promoting close collaborative working between the Church’s national bodies, including through the management of a number of common services (Communications, Human Resources, IT etc);
  • supporting the Archbishops with their diverse ministries and responsibilities; and
  • engaging confidently with Government and other bodies.

The goals of its activity are aligned with the three strategic priorities of

  1. contributing to the common good;
  2. promoting the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church;
  3. seeking to re-imagine, reshape and re-energise lay and ordained ministry.

What is fascinating is then to read the areas of its work. It is expressed in a slightly shorter form in the Annual Report than on the website, but the language is instructive.

  1. distributing funds received from the Church Commissioners to support ministry and mission in Church of England dioceses;
  2. resourcing the selection and training of people to carry out public ministry, both lay and ordained;
  3. promoting and encouraging church growth;
  4. resourcing engagement with issues of social justice and public debate, and promoting social cohesion;
  5. sustaining and developing work in education, lifelong learning and discipleship;
  6. supporting the maintenance and development of the Church’s built heritage;
  7. supporting and promoting the Church’s liturgy and forms of worship;
  8. supporting the Church’s ecumenical engagement both nationally and internationally;
  9. promoting the Church’s understanding of itself through research and statistical analysis;
  10. supporting the Church’s main debating and decision making bodies;
  11. strengthening the institutional effectiveness of the Church by promoting good governance.

The most striking thing for me out of these is the frequency with which collaborative terms are used—supporting, developing, resourcing, working with. It was very evident in the meeting that most of what we discussed depended for its implementation on mutual respect and understanding—and shared vision—between the Council and other parts of the Church. When looking at the ‘Resourcing the Future’ funding (a redirection of Church Commissioners’ money into areas of mission, growth and opportunity) the question came up as to how anyone would know whether this money had been well spent. The persistent answer was ‘Whether the dioceses, parishes and individuals had made good use of it’. In other words, it was entirely collaborative.

But there is another direction to look in thinking about whether power is concentrated too much in one place. Part of this is historical: it is hard to overstate how dysfunctional and incoherent the Church of England has been in the past. Not much more than 100 years ago, bishops were taking each other to court! But even 20 years ago, dioceses were not talking either to other dioceses or to ‘the centre’ about the financial situation they were in.

The other part of this is organisational. The basic organisational unit of the Church is the diocese; I don’t think this has any theological rationale (and I had a couple of interesting conversations with bishops about that over the couple of days!) but it does appear to make practical sense for many aspects of the Church’s life. Yet we live in an age when technology means it is far more sensible to collaborate nationally on practical issues (such as use of information and IT) and in a media age some things can only be handled nationally. The organisational autonomy that bishops and dioceses enjoy needs to be ameliorated by a commitment to shared working if we are going to be effective as a national Church.

Even within central and national institutions, there is some debate about where authority and decision-making power lies. It has been said that the Church is ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’ but at least one senior bishop has contested that in the past, arguing that the Church is ‘episcopally led and governed and synodically administered’. One rather bizarre organisational reality is that the subcommittees of the Archbishops’ Council have members elected by Synod; not only are these members not required to adhere to the goals of AC or the committee, at times they are elected because they disagree with the goals, and so spend their time ‘managing upwards’ in a ‘Yes, Minister’ attempt to change the agenda.

As an example of the potential of collaboration, our first item of business on Thursday was the question of evangelism amongst students. We noticed what potential was there, how important this had been in the past, how many different agencies were working in this area—but also how often different groups were working to their own agendas either without reference to one another or even in active competition. What would happen if such groups were resourced, encouraged and in conversation? And where else could consideration of this take place?

So for anyone concerned that AC has too much power, it seems to me that there are only two alternatives. The first is that the Church goes back to an uncoordinated way of operating, so that different interest groups and dioceses do their own thing in an uncoordinated way. The second is that there is some coordinating centre, but it is defined and constituted differently. Yet any such body needs to relate to the leadership of the House of Bishops (i.e. the Archbishops) and needs to have representation from other key bodies—which AC of course has. So it is rather difficult to imagine a body very different from the one we have.

Does anyone out there want to make the case for option 1?

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6 thoughts on “Is Archbishops’ Council too powerful?”

  1. Any functional organisation needs an executive to manage it’s day to day functions and in which to vest authority. That Executive should be accountable to stake holders.

    In that model the AC works very well. It is accountable to Synod (who appoint it’s members, directly and indirectly) and if Synod doesn’t like something the AC does it can act accordingly.

    Far better a strong executive than a weak one (always remembering that with great power, comes great responsibility…..)

  2. I think option 1. is the only way forward – it is typical of large British institutions to become more risk adverse and put more and more effort into the centre, and trimmed down the periphery, as they face possible collapse (I worked for ICI – you might just remember the “bellwether of British industry” – when it finally admitted defeat, broken itself up and sold everything to faster, leaner and keener competitors).
    We seem to be in danger of making the same mistakes – if we don’t choose to liberate churches and ministers to fulfil their calling – by sacrificing a few key Anglican sacred cows like: the sanctity of the parish and diocese; the ownership of ancient buildings; only ordaining ministers who can study to degree level – rather than based on gifting and calling – and then cladding them in sixteenth century clothing(!!); and using lovely but (to most outsiders) culturally inappropriate wordy liturgies..and overloading too many ministers with NHS style levels of paperwork:

    • Thanks David—but I don’t think I understand the logic of what you are saying.

      ICI lost out to ‘faster, leaner and keener competitors’ but you think that trying to be effective by actually making decisions and acting on them is going to lead to terminal decline?

      Unless I have misunderstood, that appears to be contradictory. If you think we should stay with option 1, then you are suggesting we should remain like ICI as it was—which led to its collapse.

  3. Dear Ian and David

    ICI actually lost out because it lost all sense of direction as an organisation. The approach proposed by David is to hand over any remaining semblance of Direction to clergy on the basis that they have degrees! That is worship of the world not worship of God.

    My first degree is in science and engineering (my later Masters degree is in theology) yet I have watched as the original qualifications have been dramatically downgraded in order to get more people into University. I was shocked when a young man applied for work to me and listed the subjects he did for his Masters in Engineering and I saw for myself that I had done more work for my old Bachelor of Science degree than he was doing for his Masters of Engineering.

    We ARE the Church of God. We are NOT the Church worshiping the world. We are showing God to the world.

  4. I think the bishop as the focus and means of unity within the universal church is the ecclesiololgical, ie theological reason for the CofE being organised by diocese. Seems a good theology to me. However there is still scope for economies of scale in finance, IT, Education, etc which does happen regionally across dioceses without compromising the theology. As an overseer isn’t that rationale enough?

    There seem to be a few of us ex-ICI employees in the church!

  5. These are helpful observations, Ian. But I think there is more to be said for ‘option 1’ than you allow.

    One way of analysing this might be to say that the church currently seems to be moving (in the quest for ‘efficiency’) towards increasing centralisation based on a top down approach, rather than one which tries to deregulate and decentralise. If a government were to try to run the economy on this basis, many of us would see this as a mistake. And it seems to me there is a legitimate debate about whether a similar approach should be taken in respect to other aspects of our institutional or political life. Is a centralised Whitehall department best placed to run our schools or universities, for example ? Or should we attempt instead to devolve power to the local level (or at least to a range of competing bodies or charities), to determine staffing, curriculum, and best practice ? In terms of education policy, it is not at all obvious that centralisation is the best way forward.

    And one might well make that same argument in the church. It is not at clear to me (for example) that centralising elements of theological training (in terms of common awards etc.) will result in better provision overall. Of course, it will result in more uniform provision, but that might be just the problem. In free market terms, deregulation and decentralisation are desirable because they allow for and encourage innovation in response to local needs, of the kind that authorities at the centre (however well meaning and benign) are not able perceive.

    You (and the Archbishops Council) seem to worry about ‘lack of co-ordination’ between different parts of the church. But this seems really to be a worry about a failure to ‘co-ordinate’ with centralised authority. My view is that this lack of co-ordination is exactly what will allow different elements of the church to respond creatively to new situations.

    No doubt poor co-ordination will mean some parts of the church seem moribund or defunct. But this same situation is what allows for localised innovation and creativity. It seems to me reasonable to argue that church history supports the notion that genuine movements for reform and renewal emerge largely (if not entirely ?) from below – and usually in the face of opposition from central church authorities.

    My worry is that the move towards institutional centralisation means that the centre is increasingly determining (in a rather bland way) the boundaries of acceptable practice and theology, and that the space needed for reform and renewal from below is being squeezed, to the detriment of us all.


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